At the time of writing Nelson Mandela is clinging to life, as they say. Or perhaps trying to divest himself of it. South Africans are said to be praying for him.
It’s the cruel fate of some great national leaders to be kept alive as long as medical technology permits. When I went to Spain in October 1975 to begin my career as a journalist, I arrived just as Franco was at his last gasp. This was excellent timing for me, as it meant there would be big political changes to report. It was also joyous news for his many enemies. But it was seen by his supporters to be a catastrophe (correctly from their point of view, as his dictatorship started to crumble within months).
So the hospital doctors made heroic efforts to keep Franco alive for as long as possible. When I arrived in Madrid he had just suffered a third heart-attack, and was clearly being held together with string. Completely pointless of course - but there was a feeling that if they could keep the old geezer going for another month or two they could postpone the future. His last words were said to be, ‘I never knew it could be so hard to die’.
I wonder if something like that is happening to Mandela, who has been in and out of hospital quite a lot in recent months. The thought has occurred to some people. Andrew Mlangeni, a fellow prisoner in Robben Island, thinks it’s too much. When Mandela’s daughter came out with the usual platitudes – that her father is recovering, ‘he’s a fighter’ - Mlangeni was widely quoted as encouraging his family to ‘release’ him ‘so that God may have his own way’.
Some reports talk of Mlangeni having broken a ‘national taboo’, and of course it will be hard for South Africans to lose this source of great inspiration. But the taboo can affect any family, that make strenuous efforts to keep elderly loved ones alive against their will because they can’t deal with the emotional wrench of losing them - with the acquiescence of medical staff who, left to themselves, would prefer to let nature take its course. The case of a young stroke victim, who might conceivably be nursed to recovery, is one thing; the case of a chronically sick 94-year old something rather different.
How would this drama play out in the brave new world that atheists would like to live in, where humans are purged of nonsensical notions of living on after death? Perhaps we would hear less about release, and more about praise for being a 'fighter', for ‘raging against the dying of the light’, of squeezing the last drop out of a life that, once extinguished, has gone forever.
I don’t at all mean that atheists and agnostics can’t take an equally sensitive view of the matter as believers - of course they do. But if all humans knew – in the sense that science knows and wants all educated people to know – that survival of death is a fairytale, the merciful act of letting loved ones go might be harder to achieve.